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Florida governor Ron DeSantis

Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Governor Ron DeSantis said it himself last year, after U.S. News & World Report again ranked Florida the No. 1 state for higher education: “Florida schools are some of the best in the nation.” He expressed similar sentiments last week, when—from the other side of his mouth—he announced all of the ways he needs to fix those same institutions because they are factories for “indoctrination.”

Despite the cross-messaging from Kim Jong-Ron, it is clear that Florida’s colleges and universities are not broken. They will be, however, if the governor’s long-term agenda to dismantle higher education is allowed to succeed. A man who holds degrees from not one but two Ivy League universities, Harvard and Yale, has mounted an assault on our institutions of higher education that will leave them weaker and of significantly less value to the many thousands of students they serve.

As those of us in higher education know well, colleges and universities are a public good vital to our communities and our democracy. In Florida, industry, technology, business and the arts from the Gulf Coast to the Space Coast all rely on higher education to remain globally competitive, as they have for decades. Yet DeSantis and his team have made systematic efforts to dismantle the freedoms of students and faculty to teach and learn at the cutting edge of all fields.

Florida’s higher education campuses and classrooms have suffered one attack after another, seeking to decimate the constitutional rights of students, faculty and staff. Since 2021, DeSantis has pushed through efforts to compel state-sponsored speech on campus, dismantle oversight, encourage corruption-breeding secrecy and invade the personal lives of all higher ed community members. For someone who claims to hate communism, he’s cribbing directly from Mao’s playbook.

More specifically, here is what DeSantis has been up to regarding higher education in Florida:

  • State universities and colleges must administer annual ideological surveys to all higher ed students, faculty and staff.
  • Under the Stop WOKE Act—which has been temporarily enjoined by a federal court from being enforced in higher education settings—endorsement of theories that criticize systemic racism is forbidden. Disparagement of these theories is openly allowed and even welcomed. Millions of dollars in state funding can be revoked if transgressions are discovered.
  • Students are permitted to secretly record class lectures for use in disciplinary or legal actions against faculty. To encourage harassment of faculty, all syllabi and reading lists must be posted in publicly accessible locations 45 days before the start of classes.
  • Faculty speech is unconstitutionally compelled to expose students to ideas they may find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive,” through syllabi, reading selection and class discussion.
  • All higher ed institutions must change their accreditors, with the overall aim of intimidating accrediting bodies into not investigating instances of undue political influence, regardless of party.
  • College and university presidential searches are now conducted in secret, with no opportunity for members of the public or campus community to see competing candidates and weigh the best interests of the institution. Republican politicians have been appointed to top leadership positions, like former U.S. senator Ben Sasse, now president at the University of Florida, and former Florida state senator Ray Rodrigues, now chancellor of the State University of Florida system. As of last week, former Florida politician and commissioner of education Richard Corcoran has been appointed as interim president of New College of Florida, Florida’s honors university.
  • New College has been subject to a hostile takeover by extremist ideologues in an effort to enforce conservative ideology on campus through authoritarian tactics. At the first Board of Trustees meeting, these extremists fired New College’s president, replacing her with Corcoran, and voted to begin negotiations with another Republican politician to become the college’s general counsel.
  • DeSantis and the Florida House of Representatives made demands in January for information regarding funding of programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory at colleges and universities. The governor now intends to bar funding for these programs across the higher education system.
  • McCarthyist investigations target trans students and employees by demanding information that could potentially compromise patient privacy and discourage individuals from seeking medically appropriate care.
  • Florida College System presidents issued a collective statement affirming their view that some diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are harmful to higher education.

On top of all of this, eradicating tenure and academic freedom in the university system is one of the governor’s most recent projects. Florida Board of Governors regulation 10.003 proposes to create a statewide system wherein tenured faculty are reviewed every five years, and any faculty member found wanting can be immediately terminated, with no effective process of appeal or other redress. (While the proposed regulation states that decisions can be appealed on narrow grounds to determine if they violate any university regulations or collective bargaining agreements, it also stipulates that the arbitrator cannot substitute his or her judgment for that of the university.)

In effect, the proposed regulation places every tenured faculty member on a continuing contract revocable every five years, thereby eliminating the protections of academic freedom that tenure was designed to ensure. In fact, this regulation eliminates tenure in all but name, weaponizing a popular misunderstanding of tenure as a job for life rather than the assurance of due process that it is. And what’s worse—the decision of which faculty members to fire is placed in the sole hands of the chief academic officer, a.k.a. the provost, who can ignore all other evaluations of the targeted faculty member.

Building upon these terrible ideas, DeSantis recently promised to enact even more extreme legislation that will empower posttenure review of any faculty member at any time, along with more invasive measures to control higher ed curriculum and classrooms across the state. Bottom line: policies such as these only make sense if your goal is to dismantle Florida’s higher education system rather than to protect it.

Unfortunately, what we know from past years is that these proposals will not remain in the Sunshine State—unlike Vegas, what happens in Florida doesn’t stay in Florida. The outlook is bleak. So, what do we all do from here?

We must remember that as experts in every field imaginable, we are far from powerless. Higher education workers are organizing around the country, through growing unions like the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) and new coalitions like Higher Education Labor United, to defend our freedoms and throw a much-needed lifeline to the sinking discussions about higher education in Florida and elsewhere.

Now more than ever, it is vital that students, faculty, staff and administrators alike band together in this moment of crisis to defend the public good of higher education. Deans and department chairs, academic organizations and student clubs, faculty senate bodies and volunteer committees all should be writing statements of support for their fellow colleagues and associated communities in Florida. Feel free to send those statements to us at UFF, and we will help publish them widely. Anyone can sign UFF’s petition to oppose posttenure review, as we do all in our power to protect education, protect democracy and protect the future for our state’s students and families, who deserve the same quality of education DeSantis received before he decided universities were the enemy.

There has never been a more important moment to take action to protect the institutions that made us who we are and shaped the identity of this country. Our colleges and universities deserve to be protected from authoritarian control. I hope that you will join me as well as the thousands of us across Florida who are ready to take up collective action in defense of truth, of hope and of the future of higher education.

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